Use Outlook As a Case/Matter-Based Organizer

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Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

Outlook is, by default, set up to organize your life by contact. The “activities” tab (or button, if you have upgraded to Outlook 2007), connects you to all the tasks, appointments, and contacts associated with a particular contact. This works well in some worlds, but not so well for law offices, where you really want to track all the to-dos, appointments, and e-mails associated with a particular case.

The solution is pretty easy, actually. At left, you can see how I organize my folder tree and my “Matters – open” folder. E-mails are automatically associated with contacts, so you just need a way to group a set of contacts (parties, attorneys, witnesses, etc.), tasks, and appointments. I just set up a separate folder for my open cases and name them with my file number and case name. I associate the file with the contacts relevant to the file, and link all tasks and appointments to the “matter” contact. That way everything is linked. Click on the “Activities” tab/button of your matter to bring up all the contacts, tasks, and appointments, on that case. Click on the individual contacts to get to the e-mails associated with the matter.

When creating a new task or appointment, just use the “Contacts” field at the bottom of the form to link it to the matters. If you get an e-mail related to a matter but that isn’t from a contact in your address book, just right-click on the e-mail in your Inbox and select “Message Options.” One of the options is a “Contacts” link where you can associate that message with your matter.

And there you go. Matters-based organizing in Outlook. Easy as pie.

The key to organizing in Outlook by case/matter is getting to know your “Activity” tab/button (Outlook 2007 at right—yes, I am evaluating Office 2007, but I am holding off on my review until I have lived with it for two weeks). In Outlook 2002/2003, this is a tab in every Contact form. Open up the contact, click on the Activity tab/button, and you can see every e-mail to and from that contact as well as every contact, task, and appointment you have associated with that contact. You have to associate everything but e-mails manually, but it is just as quick as doing it in TM. Quicker, actually, as long as TM takes to save a form.

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  • Nigel Hill

    Dear Sir

    I tried what you suggested as it seemed a great idea. However you cant move a block of emails to the activities section and there is no way I am going to individually associate 100s of emails to a “matter contact”.

    Surely, there must be a way to be able to associate a block of existing emails???

    Kind Regards

    Nigel Hill

  • Sam Glover

    The trick is to make sure your matter contact is associated with all relevant contacts, tasks, etc.

    Since emails are automatically associated with the relevant contacts, you have to go to that contact to see communications with them. Not perfect, as you would rather have those emails link to the matter, I am sure. But it works if you don’t want to use something else.

    However, I have since stopped using Outlook. Indexed search such as Windows Desktop Search that comes with Outlook 2007 (or you can install it for older versions from Microsoft) makes it easy to find every email on a whim. I figure why bother organizing emails when you can find them whenever you want them with fast, indexed search.

  • Sandra

    I set up the outlook folders as you indicate but cant figure out how to set up a case folder. Is it set up as a separate folder under matters open (the picture on your web site isnt showing that. Also how does one link more than one contact to a folder

  • You just use contacts for cases. Just assign them a category like “Cases.”

  • A. Tashjian

    Is there a way to share the setup with office staff so everyone is on the same page; sort of like network it?

  • Tom Fisher

    I saved a link to this article some time ago. I just came across it again while cleaning out email. Does the article, which was oriented toward Outlook 2003, make sense with respect to Outlook 2010. If so, how would the article’s procedures be used in Outlook 2010

    • A few things are in different places, but yes, you should be able to do this in Outlook 2010.